The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue
The Miraculous The Miraculous: New York

3. [Battery Park City]

A 13-year-old girl and her parents survive the 50-day siege of Budapest by the Soviet Army during which 38,000 civilians die (13,000 from fighting between the Soviet Army and the German and Hungarian defenders, 25,000 from starvation). Already they have been incredibly lucky not to be among the 606,000 Hungarian Jews (71 percent of the nation’s Jewish population) murdered by the Nazis.

After immigrating, first to Sweden, then to the US, the girl grows up to be an artist. At the age of 51 she embarks on a singular project: planting a two-acre wheat field on landfill in lower Manhattan, practically in the shadow of a pair of identical 110-story office towers. (Much of the landfill was generated during the excavations for the foundations of the towers.) To prepare the site, the artist adds an additional 200 truckloads of dirty landfill, containing rubble, rusty pipes, car tires, old clothes and assorted garbage, all of which has to be painstakingly removed. Then 80 truckloads of dirt are added, which provide one inch of topsoil. Working with a few assistants and volunteers, she creates 285 hand-dug furrows, each of which takes 2-3 hours to plant, and then tends the field for four months, eventually harvesting over 1,000 pounds of grain.

The entire 92-acre landfill on which her wheat field flourishes for one summer is, she notes, worth some $4.5 billion. In the decades that follow, the area will become the site of numerous residential and commercial structures, as well as schools, parks, museums, libraries and other structures. Its value will increase immensely. It will also become the site of other works of art: murals and sculptures by some of the most celebrated artists of the period. The site, now densely populated, will suffer damage when the two towers collapse and burn as the result of a terrorist attack during which 2,606 people are killed.

The harvested grain is transported to 28 cities around the world as part of an exhibition about world hunger.

Wheatfield is the title the artist gives to the work that, she explains, “grew out of a longstanding concern and need to call attention to our misplaced priorities and deteriorating human values.”

As I write this more than 37 million people, including 11 million children, in the United States struggle with hunger.

As I write this, the artist is 89 years old.

[Agnes Denes]

Contributor

Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.

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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

All Issues